The exchanges took shape in games played by U.S. citizens and Costa Rican guests such as sack racing, water-balloon tossing and volleyball while the University of Costa Rica’s band played classic American tunes. And dozens of Costa Rican high-school-aged students enrolled in the Access program attended.
Paid for by the U.S. State Department and operated by the Centro Cultural Costarricense Norteamericano, the program is a two-year, intensive English course for high achieving but disadvantaged teens..
“Kids have gotten jobs because of the English that they’ve learned, and they’ve been able to help their families with higher income and a better a life, more opportunities,” said Arturo Muñoz, academic director at the Centro Cultural.
In its third generation of students, the program was designed to teach English to high scoring students from impoverished families in order to give them a fighting chance in the international labor market.
Although the United States funds the same program in other countries, the State Department has awarded 400 Costa Rican students a $2,000 scholarship to go through the program free of charge over the past four years.
“It’s very important that Latin America continue its development . . .and for that to happen, they have to be able to access new markets and be able to adapt to the globalization,” explained Mark Tauber, a U.S. Embassy public affairs officer. “If we’re going to help these countries develop, become bigger partners with us in trade relations, education exchanges, we’ve got to be able to give them basic English skills.”
In addition to going to their normal schools during the week, the Access program requires that students go to class again every Saturday for a four-hour English lesson.
In many cases, neither the public schools nor the students’ homes have electricity or Internet, and Lynn Yrby, an Access teacher at a school in the Guadalupe neighborhood north of San José. She said she sees her role as being an ambassador from the United States and exposes her students to different places and cultures in the world.“These kids come from very poor families and . . . some of these kids are raising their siblings, some of these kids have so many obligations to their families and it’s difficult for them to get time to study,” said Ms. Yerby. “What’s great about this program is that we can expose them to the outside world, because . . . it’s difficult for them to contact people outside or contact cultures outside of their communities.”
Exposing the students to cultures and places in the United States is a major part of the program, and it seems to have sparked not only interest in the United States, but also goals of someday moving there and eventually achieving the classic American Dream with the family, the house, the car and the job.
“My dream is go to the United States and have a house, have a good job, have a car, maybe a family,” said Access student Jonathan Jiménez, 16. “I like living here, but I like to speak English, and I think that I’ll enjoy living in the United States.”In addition, Jiménez says that the Access form a camaraderie that is stronger than the bonds students form with the rest of their peers at their regular school, because things are more relaxed and fun in their Access classes, but also productive.
“In the course, it’s more fun, because in high school it’s more . . . . ,“ said Jiménez trailing off as he tried to come up with the words. “More stressful,” interceded his friend, Juliana, also 16, who wants to become a systems engineer. “And in the course we can play, we can speak English, we can make jokes with other partners . . . it’s more fun,” Jiménez continued.
However, more than just being fun, Muñoz says that learning English is vital in helping these students finding jobs that will allow them to pull themselves and their families out of poverty, and the students recognize it.
“For me it’s important because, it’s an open door for a new world,” said Hugues Castro, a 17-year-old aspiring hotel manager. “I think this is my future, because now you need English for everything, for whatever work,” added Jiménez.
Although Jiménez at first said he wanted to work with electrical technology, he later confessed that he has had a dream of becoming a war hero and military commander since he was very young, and his real dream is to someday move to the United States to join the armed forces.
“My mother and all of my friends told me that I’m crazy and I’m so stupid,” he said. “My mother told me that I can do other things that are more fun or that I like, and maybe she’s right, but I think that if in the future I have the opportunity, maybe I’ll get it.”
At the Fourth of July of event, the students were allowed to come for free if they wished, in order to learn more about American culture, and at least 50 of the 108 students currently in the program across the country opted to participate.
“I think that America is a helpful country, because they are giving us the food, the drinks, and we don’t have to pay,” said Castro. “It’s a huge celebration and they want to share with us this celebration.”
“I think that it’s good to learn about other cultures, like the Americans, it’s good for me,” added Juliana.
After their program ends in December, all three students plan to continue studying English in the hopes of one day of traveling to the United States and possibly living there long-term.